The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is staging the Grand Challenge race this week in hopes of spurring development of robotic transportation. The military has mandated that by 2015 a third of its vehicles be able to traverse long distances without a driver. Thus far several million dollars have been wasted by military contractors trying to accomplish this, so DARPA decided to use a $1 million carrot to get college students, small companies and gearheads to take a stab at the task, and it looks like it will work.
DARPA is seeking to promote innovative technical approaches that will enable the autonomous operation of unmanned ground combat vehicles. In the future, such combat vehicles will operate over varied terrain without the benefit of road signs, pre-programmed routes, etc. Autonomous vehicles must navigate from point to point in an intelligent manner so as to avoid or accommodate obstacles and other impediments to the completion of their missions. For example, an extremely large vehicle that simply travels on a straight line between two points by climbing over or breaking through everything in its path (and destroying what cannot support that movement) is not the type of intelligent solution that is sought. Vehicles that cannot demonstrate intelligent autonomous behavior will not be accepted as Participants.
The race course is from Los Angeles, CA, to Las Vegas, NV, and was planned out by DARPA ahead of time, but the exact route was not revealed to the contestants until two hours before the event. The competing vehicles have to stay within a defined “corridor” along the path, and will be judged on how accurately they track along the course and how quickly they get to their destination (and IF they get there.)
Live updates and photos are available here.